No matter how you slice it, Anthony Russo is a success story. He developed one of the first New York-style pizzeria concepts in Houston. After perfecting his family's recipes for his own restaurants, he took the concept and started franchising it. That concept was Russo's New York Pizzeria.
Today, you can find Russo's New York Pizzeria all across Houston and in every major suburb: Katy, The Woodlands and League City, among others. Yet, it is no typical franchise. No matter which location it is, almost everything is made in-house, from the pizza dough to the gnocchi.
Russo is the story of a chef who made it: someone who was able to take a successful concept and package it in a way that, in the hands of the right people, can be replicated over and over again.
In part one of this Chef Chat, learn how he got his start, grew his business from one restaurant to four and then started franchising his concept to others. Come back for part two tomorrow, where Russo will talk about the food NY Pizzeria has to offer, how it's continued to grow and what else is on the horizon.
EOW: So, tell me how you became interested in cooking.
AR: My parents moved in 1978 from New Jersey to Galveston and I grew up in the restaurant business. They opened a place called Russo's Italian restaurant on Seawall. I was 12 years old at the time, so after school my homework was cooking in the kitchen. I followed in my dad's footsteps and we would cook with chefs from all over Italy. Mom is from Sicily and Dad is from Naples. So every summer, we would have chefs from Bologna, Naples and Sicily stay with us. They would work through the summer time, so that's how I learned how to cook all of this different Italian cuisine. It was fine dining.
When I was 17 or 18 years old, I attended college part-time and I opened my own business. I called it Russo's Pizza. That's how I started. It was 800 square feet. I had a pizza oven, a dough mixer and two tables. That's it. I could only sit eight people. That's how small it was. That was '85 or '86.
EOW: That was when you were in college? So you were attending college and running a restaurant at the same time?
EOW: How did you find the time?
AR: I loved the business part of it. I had spent so much time in the kitchen. We made everything from scratch. We used to make our own homemade pastas, our own sauces, our own chicken stock, our lasagnas, our meatballs-- they were all family recipes. We made it all in house. So, I wanted to take that and develop and expand. Dad was old-school Italian. He didn't want to expand the concept. "Stay here and you can take over the family business." But my dream was to open more restaurants.
EOW: What happened to your parents' restaurant?
AR: They retired. They stayed open for about 25 years. I went back and forth from Houston to New Jersey several times over the years and saw several pizzeria concepts. They had pizza by the slice and thin crust pizza. So, I developed a New York style pizza and opened a pizzeria in Clear Lake called Anthony's Pizzeria. This was in '88 or '89.
EOW: Why don't we talk just a bit about what makes New York style pizza unique?
AR: It's the ingredients that you use. It has to be high-quality and you need to know what kind of flour to use. I use high-gluten flour with the highest protein. It's milled in a certain part of Illinois. The flour, the cheese and the sauce is very important. It has to be a thin, crispy crust. You want to be able to get a slice of pizza and fold it so it stands up straight and doesn't flop on you. That's your typical New York style pizza.
EOW: The slices tend to be larger. Maybe that's because the crust is thinner?
AR: Thin crust, but our slices tend to be larger than even typical New York-style pizzas because I cut them off 28-inch party pizzas. My slices are 15 inches. They're huge-- twice the size you would get New York!
EOW: So, back to your history: what did you do next?
AR: So, I ran the pizzeria in Clear Lake for four or five years. When my lease expired and moved it to Houston at 4315 Montrose. (Author's note: It was where Brasserie Max & Julie is now.) It was fine dining Italian. I had that for about five or six years. It was a great location. We used to make some great dishes. I brought back some of the family's old menu items like veal piccata, shrimp Parmesan, pasta di Mare--some really nice Italian entrées.
But then I went back to the Pizzeria. I opened up a third location, New York pizzeria in the Medical Center. That's where I brought in the New York-style pizzas again as well as calzone, stromboli and salads-- The typical New York-flavored foods.
EOW: Now, what made you get out of fine dining?
AR: I saw a trend-- casual. I wanted to open up multiple restaurants so it was less hands-on with the business. it was so you didn't have the huge overhead of hiring a full-service waitstaff and a dining room manager. I just wanted to keep it simple. I just wanted the kitchen manager, a cook, a pizza guy and a kitchen staff.
EOW: What happened to the place you had in the Montrose?
AR: My lease expired and I was focusing on a new pizzeria concept. So, I stayed with that model for many years. I started developing more upscale casual locations that were simple to operate. My whole goal was to franchise that opportunity-- to take my family's recipes and package it to where I could franchise the concept. It took about eight or nine years to develop the franchise system.
EOW: At the point where you had the Medical Center location, describe how you grew from there.
AR: The medical center was my first pizzeria model and my second location was Beechnut. It was a little larger store, had more seating and the concept kept on working so I kept fine-tuning--the operational manuals, the recipes and the training program. Beechnut was very successful. From there, I opened 604 Polk St. downtown, which is still open today. That was 16 years ago. From Polk Street I went to 5727 Westheimer.
EOW: And these were still all your own locations?
AR: That's right.
EOW: And then you started franchising?
AR: Yes. That's when I sold the Beechnut location to a franchisee. When I started franchising, I sold my existing stores first. I sold Beechnut, I sold Polk Street and then I sold Holcombe. I kept the Westheimer store as my training store. That's where I trained franchisees.
EOW: That first franchisee-- how did you qualify him? There's a lot of trust that goes into taking your baby-- your concept that you've grown-- handing it to someone and saying "Now you're going to do it." How did you arrange that in such a way that you felt comfortable?
AR: I wanted to make sure that the recipes were perfect. That, no matter who operates the restaurant, the food is going to taste the same like I would make it. Once I felt confident that part was taken care of, that's when I was ready to franchise. I wanted to make sure when I handed it off to someone that pizza was going to taste really like New York-style pizza.
The individuals had good chemistry. I liked the couple. They were husband and wife, entrepreneurial, business-minded and they had passion for it. They cared about their business. They were going to be on-site. It wasn't like, "I'm going to be an investor and I'm just going to operate the restaurant." They were hands-on.
EOW: People who actually wanted to be in the restaurant, be in the kitchen and really oversee things.
AR: Yes. Right. And I'd come in to train them and show them how to do it. I teach them how to cook and carry on the family recipe.
EOW: When you were first starting out, what were some of the first pizzas you developed?
AR: Oh wow. The first one was the margarita pizza. Then, the Heart-Healthy Veggie Pizza with artichoke hearts and fresh spinach. That was unique to put on the menu. Most places were doing a basic pepperoni pizza. I only had eight pizzas on the menu at the time. Today, I have a total of 35 or 36 choices.
EOW: What was the pizza landscape like in Houston at the time? Did people have anything to choose from other than Pizza Hut and Pizza Inn?
AR: That's it. No. In New York and New Jersey, there are pizzerias on almost every block. In Texas, you have a lot of Mexican restaurants on every corner. (laughs) The education part was kind of challenging for me because we make everything from scratch. We don't buy pizzas from a commissary. When I talk to people about franchising, they start comparing us to Papa John's or Domino's pizza like we're that kind concept, which we're not. We do everything in-house.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 and learn more about Russo and his pizzeria franchise.